Support role for O'Leary mooted

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George Graham, who was banned from football for a year after his involvement in the Rune Hauge "bung" scandal, is expected to become Leeds United's manager within the next 24 hours following the end of Howard Wilkinson's eight-year reign yesterday.

Wilkinson, the sixth managerial casualty in a season barely three weeks old, was sacked for the first time in his career in the aftermath of Leeds' 4-0 home defeat by Manchester United. His departure paves the way for the return of Graham, the 51-year-old former Arsenal manager, who quickly emerged as favourite ahead of Kenny Dalglish, Bruce Rioch, Terry Venables and Gordon Strachan.

David O'Leary, a player under Graham and a Wilkinson signing for Leeds, is likely to link up with the former as his assistant at Elland Road. Speculation that Graham was about to re-emerge was fuelled by his withdrawal from his role as ITV's summariser at Arsenal's Uefa Cup match against Borussia Monchengladbach tonight.

Graham lost the Arsenal job in February last year amid poor results and boardroom disquiet over his acceptance of an unsolicited gift of pounds 425,000 from Hauge, a Norwegian agent. An FA commission - at which Wilkinson spoke for the Scot as a character witness - subsequently suspended him from football until July this year.

Leeds, who were taken over by the London-based Caspian media and leisure group during the summer, now have the financial clout lacking at Manchester City, whom Graham turned down last week. Wilkinson was given a transfer kitty of pounds 12m, of which around pounds 10m remains after the close-season comings and goings. Richard Thompson, a Caspian director and former owner of Queen's Park Rangers, lives in the same Hampstead apartment block as Graham.

Unrest among supporters, first heard when he sold Eric Cantona to Manchester United in 1992, had been growing since the 3-0 defeat by Aston Villa in the Coca-Cola Cup final last March.

Cantona, ironically, may have sealed Wilkinson's fate by leading Saturday's spree and scoring the final goal. Bill Fotherby, the Leeds chairman, confirmed as much yesterday, saying: "I decided after the match that the time had arrived to change manager.''

Wilkinson, who took the unusual step of attending a press conference to announce his own demise, conceded that barracking may have contributed to it: "A small section of our supporters have focused their disapproval, disappointment and dismay on me, and I think that started to affect the players."

He pronounced himself "sad and shocked" by the decision, but may have sensed it was coming. "The chairman and I had a meeting on Saturday night, and over the weekend the ramifications of it were made known to me."

While insisting that he "carried no bitterness" and urging the fans to back his successor, he implied that he should have been allowed more time. "When I came here I talked about a 10-year plan. Looking around the training ground and seeing the young players we've got, I could see that coming to fruition.

"We are now an established Premiership force with a terrific stadium plus facilities that are second to none, and in 12 months to two years people will see the benefits of the youth policy we established.

"Up until Leslie Silver (the former chairman) resigned we were sticking to that plan. But the last board had one agenda and this board's agenda is slightly different." Paul Hart, Leeds' director of youth coaching, has been named as caretaker manager. Ian Rush, the team captain, is understood to have a clause in his contract allowing him to leave in the event of a change of manager. Meanwhile, Gunnar Halle, Oldham's Norwegian defender, found his pounds 250,000 move across the Pennines cancelled yesterday.

As for Wilkinson, he intends to take a break from football, possibly until after his 53rd birthday in November. He is under no financial pressure to jump back in, having reputedly left Leeds with a pay-off of over pounds 1m under the terms of the three-year contract he signed in March.